IWD: Simone Manuel & Why Sorry Is Not The Hardest Word For Those Telling The Truth

2021-03-08 Reading Time: 16 minutes
Simone Manuel - back to back world titles beyond Olympic gold - by Patrick B. Kraemer
Simone Manuel - back to back world titles beyond Olympic gold - by Patrick B. Kraemer

International Women’s Day (IWD): a fine moment to highlight the achievements and work of women pioneers and pathfinders in swimming, including Simone Manuel, advocate for an end to racial discrimination and 2016 Olympic 100m freestyle champion for the USA. To mark IWD, SOS rolled out a package of features on legends, high achievers and others in women’s swimming who spoke and speak the Swimming Voice in one way or another, sometimes highly focussed on the water but often rippling well beyond their own pond. Some of the issues speak to the challenges rooted in the failed governance of swimming and the patriarchal leadership at the helm of the sport’s regulator.

Our SOS International Women’s Day coverage so far today:

Editorial: Simone Manuel and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, two of the last three American women to claim the Olympic 100m freestyle crown, were honoured by Sports Illustrated last year in a ranking of “The Unrelenting”, a list of “the most powerful, most influential and most outstanding women” in American sports.

We had heard Simone Manuel use her platform rot raise awareness of racism and call for change. Since George Floyd, a black man, died under the knee of a white police officer despite 9-minutes of protestations in which he stated over and over that he could not breath, Manuel has raised her voice and now says she speaks louder and prouder. Here’s how Sports Illustrated told the story:

Olympic Swimmer Simone Manuel Is Louder – and Prouder

The beliefs, convictions and frustrations have been there for years, percolating. Sometimes they went unspoken. Sometimes they were articulated in measured tones. There was no yelling, at least not in public.

In 2020, Simone Manuel is raising her voice.

“I feel in the past, I used my platform,” she told Sports Illustrated. “But not loudly.”

Always proud. Now, loud and proud. 

Manuel’s increased volume has coincided with a particularly acute moment in America, and the result is a powerful alchemy. An articulate, 23-year-old gold medalist who will be one of the marquee faces in Tokyo next summer—if there is an Olympics next summer—has a multi-layered message she is shouting out on social media and elsewhere.

Discrimination, the discrediting of people, the undermining of efforts to make the environment in which humans operate and do good work affects many realms. Simone Manuel has felt such things weigh heavily day in and day out throughout much of her life, even as she has found a form of refuge among the people she works with, the coaches, the teammates, such as Katie Ledecky and others at Stanford. Some find it hard to fathom the depths of experience involved. I don’t. I can’t possibly know as Simone Manuel knows what it feels like to be discriminated against purely because of the colour of one’s skin: it is not even enough to say that I have never in my life been made to feel uncomfortable in the colour of my skin. The truth is I was almost never aware of the colour of my skin at all when growing up – and when I was it was only because the Portuguese friends I lived among joked about me burning in the sun as a pale Brit far more easily and quickly than any of them did. I do have other reasons for appreciating the depth of her weariness and pain, one of those reasons involving the death of a black swimmer (for another day).

When Manuel writes (the full context of which is below) …:

“Days feel heavy and long. It’s hard not to feel or think about the sadness and hatred that weighs heavily on me, my people, and this nation. I’m hurt. I’m tired. We’re hurt. We’re tired.”

… and I know she is talking about racism, I reach for the places that make me feel like that to gain understanding of the depth of hurt she is feeling. Where would that be for me?

Here’s a good place to start; here is a good place to follow through; and tomorrow will bring further explanation in the next part in our series of five articles on the theme of “swimming in a pandemic” and why the sport has been frozen out of its element even when and where knowledge and experience tell us that it ought not to have been (not to be).

I’ve spent more than three decades observing FINA and its federations never get to grips with or even attempt to get to grips with issues that include sexual and other forms of abuse of minors; systematic and other types of doping that deprived generations of women (and some men) of their rightful rewards; large revenues flow into the sport only for crumbs to land at the feet of the major stakeholders in and stars of the show; the booming of a grace-and-favour, self-serving, often autocratic leadership and governance structure built to self-preserve at all costs; and continuous efforts to discredit and undermine my work, including calling sponsors and advertisers with threats if they continued to support my online journalism and a $150,000 campaign to discredit me and others on the way to the Kazan 2015 World Championships to fend off the embarrassment of a doping scandal building.

In the face of all that, I’ve heard only silence from those who might do something about it all, which is nothing compared to what victims of sexual abuse have heard (or not) from certain federations despite the devastating nature of what they have suffered – and reported, to no avail.

And all of that is true and all the more disturbing, painful and wearying when you top it with the preventable death of an athlete in FINA competition, a tragedy that is then met with the promotion of the man in charge of a heavily criticised organisation of the event concerned – and rule changes including upper water-temperature limits that have since been broken on several occasion at international events being run under FINA rule and observation. So much for a commitment to the family of Fran Crippen that what happened to their son, grandson, brother, would-be husband, father and uncle and a athlete who had raised a red flag with USA Swimming would never happen again.

It is against that backdrop and much more that I sense I have a deeper understanding of the kind of endless, systematic discrimination that Manuel speaks up against. Even then, imagine, if you can, being treated like this at any time, let alone when the world’s super-troupers are on you and you’ve just won Olympic gold for your country:

Crass, disgraceful, wounding, divisive, cruel and a sackable offence are just some of the things that came to mind.

The paper concerned published an apology – and so it should have done, hopefully front page. Of course, it should never have happened in the first place and points to a deep lack of understanding of why it should never have happened and why headline, tweet, tone and all with it should have been unthinkable, the kind of thing that would never cross your mind.

Simone Manuel handled it all so well. Inside, inside, she might have felt as though she’d swallowed cut glass.

Sorry Need Never Be The Hardest Word Among Those Who Tell The Truth

I, too, penned and ran an apology to Simone Manuel, from Swimming World during my time as Editor-in-Chief, a position that no longer exists at a website and its parent company that I have moved on from because a strong commitment to independent journalism that focussed on swimming “news, governance, sexual abuse, corruption, and doping” was dropped by the publisher.

To stick with a commitment to real journalism – particularly in a sport such as swimming, riven as it is by failed governance and by the woeful practices of governors who pay hefty sums for secret campaigns to discredit the work of critics, even heftier sums to face athletes across a courtroom is desperate pursuit of claiming rights over swimmers they simply don’t have – takes the steeliness of champions.

It takes the kind of calculation and deeper understanding of coaches and strategists who stick to processes and the long-term work required to achieve goals clearly set. It takes the kind of grit at the heart of advocates who realise their fight on behalf of victims and survivors, those discriminated again and others simply getting a bad and unfair deal from those serving as their governors and guardians, will take as long as it takes to clean up the trail of tears that taints the whole sport.

Sadly, those qualities were missing when they were needed most at a site now seeking “new content … in areas outside of news, governance, sexual abuse, corruption, and doping”. Certainly not my kind of place but I wish them “the best of luck in your future endeavours, whatever those may be”.

I use quote marks because those are precisely the words used by Janet Evans when she expressed her disappointment that FINA vice-president Dale Neuburger had “yet to pick up the phone to speak to me as a peer and colleague” at a time when the American plan was for Neuburger to step aside and give way for the legend to take a seat on the FINA Bureau. Evans told Neuburger that she was “disappointed in the lack of transparency, guidance and communication that you offered to me during this critical and confusing time”.

As such, she stepped down from a mission many had wanted to see her accomplish – and Neuburger carried on. In June, in that hotbed of swimming excellence, Qatar, he will stand for re-election to the executive of FINA. There, in that desert of women’s sport, the prospect of Evans becoming the first female president of the international federation will be lost in circumstances that might demand an inquiry if it were not for the fact that the only people who can call an inquiry are the following who wouldn’t dream of holding one.

Now that is the kind of story the Swimming World of my youth would have got stuck into.

What’s required to get that story done – and well – is the kind of steeliness of Simone Manuel when she raises the sword of anti-racism and equality not just for women but for all black communities and others who strive for a simple goal: equality, fairness, a commitment from her fellow humans to live each day without facing discrimination; to arrive in front of the media with a gold medal round her neck without having to face myriad questions – which she answered graciously and patiently even when it would have been easier to say ‘next question please’.

Well, this day, we say Happy IWD, Simone Manuel. Here’s to these kinds of things never, ever, ever happening again:

Sorry Simone…

May 31, 2020 – the original, replicated below:

Simone Manuel – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Commentary: We live in troubled times in many places and on many fronts. Silence is only the friend of those who would silence you. In that context, the best news this Sunday of Pentecost is this: we were called out by Simone Manuel for a headline and article that gave priority to what her USA and Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky had to say about the tragic death of George Floyd in woeful circumstances that led to a murder charge being laid on a policeman and sparked riots across the United States.

The missing words in the above are these: black and white. George Floyd was black, Derek Chauvin is white. Note the tense: the now former policeman remains among us to face the consequence of decisions caught on camera that left a flabbergasted world, black, white and every other color and creed, asking “2020: how?”; Mr. Floyd is no more.

Big questions on some of the biggest causes of human misery and conflict flow. Those questions are hardly new to this world, pre-date slavery and are with us yet despite laws, knowledge and cultural revolution and change.

In the welter of response across America – and indeed the wider world – to film an American police officer with his knee on a man’s neck failing to respond for almost nine minutes while the victim tells the officers present that he’s in pain, that he is claustrophobic and repeatedly gasps “I can’t breathe”, the swimming journalist’s eye is drawn to the views of swimmers. As Editor-in-Chief at Swimming World this May 31, 2020, my eye is also drawn to misjudgement and mistake made by our writers, particularly those that wound through lack of understanding and empathy.

Among the first big response seen was that of Katie Ledecky. At 16:38 yesterday, Swimming World posted a story headlined “Katie Ledecky Weighs in on George Floyd Tragedy: “Let’s Listen, Engage & Build”.

The story reflected Ledecky’s anger, dismay, solidarity with teammates and call for change of the kind all must build together. The author of the article also noticed that Simone Manuel and Natalie Hinds had spoken out on the tragic events unfolding. He added a brief introductory line, along with the full social media posts of Manuel and Hinds. The headline and the image on the story included only Ledecky and it was pushed to social media, including the twitter handles of Ledecky and Manuel. There it sat for some time, picking up many shares and likes on social media.

As such, Simone Manuel noted what she saw on twitter, a headline without her name in it and photo without her image in it.

This is how she responded, her reaction triggering a spectrum of responses:

We hear you Simone Manuel

Swimming World could, of course, simply have ignored Simone’s note and criticism, in common with the lack of response we get when, often, raising difficult (and sometimes straightforward) truths with the guardians and governors of swimming far and wide, from international to domestic levels in various places around the world.

Not on my watch. Our view is clear: no response is the wrong response and, as such, we don’t hesitate to apologise for the hurt caused to Simone Manuel. Further, we applaud her passion and advocacy on the right of all to expect even treatment of the kind inherent in the Constitution of global swimming, namely C 4: Discrimination – ” [governing body] … shall not allow discrimination … on grounds of race, gender, religion or political affiliations”.

Those words are magnified in the laws of many nations around the world, not to mention international conventions, and apply to most, if not all, likely to read this article. We, at Swimming World fully support that and the following word’s left on Simone’s Instagram page:

“Days feel heavy and long. It’s hard not to feel or think about the sadness and hatred that weighs heavily on me, my people, and this nation. I’m hurt. I’m tired. We’re hurt. We’re tired. I think it’s always hard to find the right words as they are as scattered and divided as this country. There’s too much to say, but not nearly enough time or energy to express this sad reality. We’re not all in this together!! How far have we really come? Times change. Calendar dates change, but racism still remains. If we want a better country, we ALL must fight for equality and justice. No one escapes the bonds of injustice. No one! It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We all lose when we fail to address the root of the problem. Here goes:

This is generational.
It’s not just about death.
It’s about killing our spirits.
It’s about killing our dreams.
It’s about making us feel less than.
It’s about dismissing and ignoring our pain.
It’s about silencing our voice.
It’s about punishing us when we use our voice and labeling us as “angry” or a “threat” rather than acknowledging we’re exercising our “freedom of speech.”
It’s about calling the police and using my skin color against me.
It’s about clinching your purse.
It’s about believing we don’t belong.
It’s about failing to acknowledge and understand my very existence, my pain.
It’s about repeating the sins of the past.
It’s about thinking that skin color affords ones privileges or denies basic human dignity!
It’s about speaking against instead of with our fight for justice.
It’s about remaining silent.
This needs to be everybody’s fight! •

The words “freedom”, “justice,” and “equality” are uttered by many, BUT do we really experience it? No! We have yet to experience it collectively as a nation, and we won’t until we all come together and fight for it… until we’re actually “all in this together.”

If this makes you uncomfortable, check your privilege. Think of those who lack comfort EVERY??SINGLE?? DAY??

Simone Manuel

Brava! Simone Manuel.

Simone MANUEL of the United States of America (USA) competes in the women's 100m Freestyle Heats
Simone Manuel – by Patrick B. Kraemer

She wrote in the context not just of the current tragedy and woes that flow but of the importance of understanding that the message applies to decade upon decade upon decade, with roots in centuries.

Understandable, then, that Simone Manuel should read a headline and see an image with her views of an African-American Olympic champion somehow demoted to second fiddle and respond with words this Editor has felt in bone and brain for more than the number of years the sprint ace has been on the planet: “As someone who is SO SO SO mentally, emotionally, and physically directly affected by this racism, this is exactly what I’m talking about! IM SOOOO TIRED! SO SO TIRED!!!”

It is important to all of us at Swimming World to help set the right tone and culture. The writer of the article in question, Andy Ross, was asked for his comment on the hurt caused. At my request, he penned an open note to the sprinter: “Simone, I am very sorry that this affected you in the way that it did. I hope you know that that your comments were taken very seriously. This situation has been very difficult for all of us as Americans to process and we want you to know that your voice does matter. We hope you continue to do what you do for the swimming community and on that note – we will be here to listen. Sincerely, Andy Ross”

A young writer learned a lesson old this day.

Simone Manuel, of course, is not alone in feeling weary when facing the same issues of discrimination again and again, nor are the issues she advocates confined to the United States: though aspects of what is unfolding can indeed be said to be ‘Made in America’, systemic racism is universal.

At the heart of debate is the difference between protester, rioter, looter and, indeed, media (the discrimination that sparked the current unrest spilling to riot police firing rubber bullets and pinning to the ground members of the media reporting the story).

Protest & Violence

Regardless of political persuasion, many are able to distinguish clearly between peaceful protest and then the rioting and beyond that looting and other criminal activity that has been part of the mix. Debate rages as to whether police forces have been able to distinguish those differences.

Violence, is never justified, it is said. While that sentiment is understandable and deserving of support, it also skirts the realities of the struggles to end slavery, the struggle of Mandela and the struggle of so much else and others in the vast book of human development.

It skirts, too, a contemporary experience. Colin Kaepernick avoided violence when he took the knee. He was blackballed and ostracised and criticised for it, the shrill cry of ‘wrong’ to be found on a spectrum of president to pauper. He also won a lot of support at a time of growing support for the athlete voice on many and diverse subjects, including clean sport, that speak to the debate on the right to protest

Now, we are witnessing the consequence of George Floyd’s last words of justified protest being willfully ignored: “I can’t breathe”. And soon he did not and never will again.

In the mix are acts of reasonable protest through to the acts that do no-one and no cause a favour, such as this story about the senseless destruction of a bar that a black Minneapolis firefighter bought with his life savings.”

One of those who responded with support for Simone Manuel on twitter, wrote:

“It is okay to be tired! It is okay to be tired! What’s not okay? It is not okay to be silent! Continue to make them uncomfortable! They will change because they know we hear you and we support you!”

Quite so.

Simone Manuel, with our apology for the timing of events and getting the emphasis wrong in tight schedules and at a time of COVID-19 that has had a significant impact on our operations and work, you are right to be tired.

This editor, Craig Lord, got that on several fronts campaigning for more than 30 years on issues off abuse, doping, justice, harmful governance, equality and against leaders who allow those with criminal records to keep honours for “services to swimming” decades after crimes are uncovered while taking minutes to slap warnings on swimmers staging peaceful protests in the name of clean sport.

That campaigning has often been done against a backdrop of silence from athletes when their voices could have made the world of difference. In your event at Rio 2016, you joined a list of champions that includes three GDR women fed banned substances as young teenagers and your fellow American Nancy Hogshead (Makar), rape victim and long-time advocate for safe sport and justice for abuse victims.

With those issues and others in mind, I can well appreciate the weariness you express when it comes to lack of cultural and systemic change so long overdue on a matter that affects you directly. I can’t measure my observation of pain against your pain experienced nor would I attempt to do so but I can tell you this: the passion derived from talking to an Olympic gold medalist raped by her coach between the ages of 11 and 14; the feelings stirred by the events surrounding the death of Fran Crippen and how those play out yet in athlete and open water safety; and the overwhelming sadness at interviewing two girls, including one of those who preceded you as Olympic 100m free champion, while knowing full well that I was looking at victims of abuse do indeed shape not only my work but that of those around me.

When I accepted the job at Swimming World a little under a year ago, I did so on the back of a commitment to independent journalism and a fearless approach to speaking truth to power. We’ve done much in the intervening months that speaks to that commitment.

As such, it pains us all at Swimming World that a mistake, regardless of unavoidable circumstance, should leave the impression that we are part of your problem.

Let me assure you that we stand with you and support your advocacy, without compromise. Our only hope is that, at the relative dawn of the pro-swim era, athletes will raise their voices not only on the matters that affect them directly but those that affect the environment and standing of their sport and its ability to be a safe, happy, healthy and inclusive environment void of discrimination.

In Rio, you answered a question from me and other colleagues being the first African-American woman to win Olympic solo gold in the pool 40 years after Dutch sprinter Enith Brigitha would surely have made history had it not been for the abuse of underage athletes and systematic cheating in the GDR:

“It means a lot to me. This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans who have come before me and been an inspiration. I hope I can be an inspiration to others so this medal is for those who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find the love and drive to get to this point.”

You noted the path beaten by the likes of Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia, pioneers in terms of their colour and status as world-class elite USA teamsters, and you were then asked about your friendship with artistic gymnastics champion Simone Biles:

“Simone Biles and I are practically the same person. She is super cool. I met her about a year ago. We hung out a couple of times and I am very happy for how she has done. We both bring gold medals back to Houston, Texas.”

The questions then turned to this: could your victory help to deliver a message of tolerance and diversity. You replied: “Yeah, it means a lot especially with what is going on in the world today. Some of the issues with police brutality. This win kind of brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world.

Simone Manuel of the United States of America (USA) reacts after claiming the 2017 World 100m freestyle title – by Patrick B. Kraemer

I wrote, that day: One fine day … the colour may not matter but it does now and in a positive way, she seemed to suggest, even though she would prefer it if her colour were not the constant hook on which her story was pegged.

The context was your quote:

“Yeah, that is something I have definitely struggled with a lot. Just coming in to this race tonight I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders as it is something I carry with me being in this position. But I do hope it kind of goes away.

“I am super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but at the same time I would like there to be a day when there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer’.”

“The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I am not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, I am not supposed to be able to break the Olympic record, and that is not true as I work as hard as anybody else and I love the sport and I want to win, just like everybody else.”

I concluded my piece: “There it is, now in black and white. A line spent and part of history … the inspiration is only just beginning”.

We’re sorry if we caused you and other African-American swimmers any pain through a tweet that reflected a headline and image overtaken within minutes and look forward to engaging with you further on your swimming and related advocacy.

Meanwhile, as all should, we will continue to learn, think, engage, discuss and improve.

End of apology and commentary, one that tackled the issues raised by Simone Manuel in a way that demands the application of independent journalism and an understanding of the links between bad outcomes and bad culture, or, bad outcomes and bad governance, bad outcomes.

I hope no niche site will ever have to apologise to Simone Manuel or anyone else ever again on the issue of discrimination and a lack of understanding of the depth of pain at play. I also hope that niche sites will learn to understand their responsibility to covering all the difficult issues, especially those that advertise themselves as “The World’s Most Trusted Source For Aquatic News”.

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